5 Communication Mistakes Too Many Leaders Make

Audience Applauding Speaker At Business Conference
This is a guest post by Alison Davis, CEO of Davis and Company, an employee communication firm helping companies improve employee engagement. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

5 Communication Mistakes

Congratulations! You’ve been promoted or successfully built your business, and now you’re a leader.

But now the hard work is ahead, especially when it comes to communicating with your employees. That’s because almost everything you learned as a manager doesn’t apply any more.

While manager communication focuses on the task at hand, leaders have a broader role: to articulate where the organization is heading, clarify what employees need to do to help the organization succeed, and share progress and accomplishments.

The good news is that when you fulfill your communication role, employees become motivated to do their best work. Employees want to connect with their senior leaders and feel engaged in the company’s strategic direction. Hearing from the boss is a key driver of satisfaction.

But leaders often lack the clarity, time and skills they need to communicate effectively. As a result, they make these 5 communication mistakes:

 

“Communication is the real work of leadership.” -Nitin Nohria

 

Mistake #1: Disappear.

You feel like you spend the whole day in meetings: one-on-one sessions, team meetings, large-group conferences. So it seems you’re always in front of the people who work for you. But if you analyze who you spend time with, you’d realize that you’re visible to only a small percentage of employees. And the larger and more spread out your organization is, the greater the likelihood that many employees rarely see you.

What to do differently: You need a communication plan designed to provide maximum visibility, given your time available. The best practice is to schedule a mix of:

  • An all-hands or town hall meeting at least once a quarter
  • Briefings with managers several times a year
  • Informal sessions (you can call them “coffee chats”) with small groups of employees at least six times a year. These chats are more about hearing from staff members than delivering a message.
  • Presence on electronic channels. For example, if you’ve got an internal social networking platform, participate in online conversations. Or create written or video messages on an intranet site.
  • Showing up and walking around. These informal “sightings”—having lunch with a few people in the cafeteria, touring a new facility—are very valuable for demonstrating that you’re in touch with what’s happening.

 

“Presence is more than just being there.” –Malcolm Forbes

 

Mistake #2: Use “CEO Speak”

One of your key functions as a leader is to think about the long-term strategy. But because you focus so much on the big picture, it’s easy to forget that although employees are smart, they’re also overloaded with information. And employees don’t see issues from the same 35,000-foot perspective leaders do—they’re standing at ground level, trying to focus on what they need to do right now. So when you share information that’s strictly high-level, it doesn’t resonate.

What to do differently: Make your messages simple, tangible and relatable. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing we need employees to know this month, this quarter or this year? To understand? To do differently?” Then focus on providing employees with the core information they need most.

 

Communication Tip: Focus on providing only the core information people need.

 

Mistake #3: Get the timing wrong

One of leaders’ toughest communication challenges is managing timing. If you wait too long to share information, you run the risk that employees already know what you’re now revealing—which affects credibility. But communicating too soon can also be a problem. For example, when leaders have been working behind the scenes on a big change like a reorganization, they start to become impatient, feeling they should tell employees something. So they announce that the company will reorganize soon and more will be shared later. The result? You create anxiety because employees don’t know exactly how they will be affected. It’s better to sit tight until all the details are set.

What to do differently: Focus on how and when employees will be affected, and time communication to meet employees’ need to know, not your need to tell.

 

“Life is about timing.” –Carl Lewis

 

Mistake #4: Do all the talking

Many leaders associate “communicating” with sharing information. As a result, they plan town hall meetings that have 50 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A. But when my firm asks employees what they need from leaders, here’s what they say:

  • “More open dialogue with top management.”
  • “I obviously want to hear from leaders, but it’s also important that leaders listen to us.”

What to do differently: One of the most effective ways to create more employee engagement is to communicate in a way that encourages employees to participate. And a key ingredient is the ability of leaders to engage employees in two-way communication.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the least effective way to begin a Q&A session is by saying, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question sets the expectation that only people who don’t understand something that has been shared will speak up.

Instead, try saying this: “Based on what I’ve just told you, what will be the hardest aspects to accomplish?” This approach creates two-way communication in a way that makes people more comfortable about participating.

 

Leadership Tip: Don’t ask for questions. Instead, encourage an immediate two-way communication.

Mistake #5: Mismanage employee questions

It’s likely that you’re a driven, Type-A person who doesn’t have an abundance of patience. Well, those same attributes that made you successful can trip you up when employees start asking questions. Employees ask all kinds of questions. Some are super specific. Others go off on seemingly unrelated tangents. Still others have been asked (and answered) many times before. The problem occurs when you respond to those questions in an impatient, dismissive way.

What to do differently. Remember that how well you answer questions can mean the difference between encouraging employees to speak freely or shutting people down. So you need to act patient, even if you don’t feel that way. And be as candid as possible. And if you don’t know all the details, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” but make sure to tell employees you’ll give them the rest of the information as soon as possible.

 

“Communication must be HOT: honest, open, and two-way.” -Dan Oswald

 

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